MEMOIR: Chapter 32 Twenty Questions

Chapter 32

Twenty Questions

 [Note: this is one of the chapters from the in-progress sequel to Looking Through Water, with the characters Addie and Joe. I’ve changed the names back to Judy and Tim. While the event is factual, some details have been fictionalized.]

By December 1994 the phone was by my bed for the late night calls. Tim was having the middle-of-the-night jimjams more and more these days, sitting in the dark in his living room up at the mountain. He’d had sleepless periods off and on for years, ever since the 1982 morning when Dad, driving the two of them to dig clams, had crashed into a telephone pole at the Cannon Beach exit. Dad had died, Tim survived. The insomnia had eased in recent years, but since his diagnosis, the jimjams were back. I had taught him to breathe in and out to a count of seven, suggested he count backward from 100, maybe drink warm milk at bedtime. He’d tried them all. Nothing worked.

            When the phone rang that night I came awake fast. The numbers on the digital clock glowed large, ruby red, squared-off. I could read them even without my glasses.


            Whirls of snow gusted white against the black square of the window. Jack breathed slow and steady humped under the quilts with his back to me. The phone rang again. I was shaking from waking up so fast, knew it would likely be a phone call that meant I would have to get up, get dressed, and hurry out to the car in the middle of the night in a snowstorm. I had to prepare myself, breathe in alertness and resolve before answering the phone.

But this one was Tim, not Irene, it didn’t feel like Irene, and I didn’t need Caller ID to know it. I sat up, found the phone in the ruby-red glow of the clock, felt for the Talk button and pressed it with my thumb.

            “Hi, Tim,” I said.

            Tim’s voice echoed, a cheerleader in a near-empty gymnasium. “Hey, Judy, guess where I am!”

            Couldn’t be the E.R., not with this voice.

            “In bed?” I guessed.

            “Not hardly,” Tim said. “Keep trying. Twenty questions.”

            So it was another of his games. We’ve played this game before, as kids on car trips to town. Little Timmy stumped me as often as I stumped him. He loved to stump me. Loved to one-up me. Always played to win. This wasn’t one of the dark phone calls with the middle-of-the-night jim-jams. This was my little brother Timmy, and we were in the back seat of the car playing Twenty Questions.

            I took a drink from the glass of water on the bed table, turned the receiver to untwist the phone cord. Jack had rolled onto his back and whiffled soft snores. I nudged him over on his side, pushed the pillow into a ball behind me, and settled back against it.

            “Are you on your cell phone?”


            So he wasn’t at home.

            “Are you somewhere in Hood County?”

            Heavy breathing, paper rustling.

            “Looks like it.”

            “Are you looking at a map?”

            “Yes,” Tim said. “That’s three questions,”

            “A road map?”

            “Not exactly.”

            Maps. Road maps, topographical maps, trail maps.

            “Is it a hiking map?”

Couldn’t be a hiking map, it was the middle of the night, snowing.

            “Yes!” he said. “That’s five.”

            “Are you alone?”

            “I sure am.”

            “Are you lost?”

            “Hell, no,” Tim said. “Never been less lost,”

            It was the middle of the night. December. Deep snow all over HoodCounty, especially in the higher altitudes.

            “What altitude are you?”

            “No fair! That’s not a Yes or No question. But I’ll tell you anyway.” More map rustling.

            “Looks like about forty-two hundred feet,” he said. “That counts for two questions.”

            “So how many am I up to now,” I asked. “Six?”

            “Don’t you wish! Try nine.

            “You’re up in deep snow and freezing cold in the middle of the night…” I said. “Are you in a cabin?”

            “Not in a cabin, not in a house, not in a lodge, not in a structure,” he said.

            “In your car?”

            “Not in my car.”

             “Are you warm? Are you sheltered?” This no longer felt like a game.

            Tim was still playing, his voice light, echoey. “I’m sheltered,” he said. “I’m warm. Cozy, in fact.”

            “Are you…in a tent?” I said. “Couldn’t be in a tent.”

            “Bingo!” Tim said. “Yes, I’m in my alpine tent, got my lantern, got my sub-arctic sleeping bag, got my cell phone, got a couple of books—I’m set!”

            His voice echoed, bounced and chimed in my head, Little Timmy in discovery mode, catching frogs in the ditch. His voice was Ju-bi-la-te, Ju-bi-la-te, the carol of the bells the choir sang every Christmas Eve at the Presbyterian Church down the street, and it was Jubilate joy in his voice on the phone. Tim’s voice the same as little Timmy in the woods, crawling out from a lean-to camouflaged with cedar branches and moss, his eyes dancing black fire—“I’m here, Judy!” I’d been calling and calling, and he was right there the whole time. Camouflaged.

            “You’ve still got eight questions,” he said. “Find my tent.”

            “Is your tent in the snow?”

            “Yes,” Tim said. “Snow under me, snow around me, drifts in fact, and snowing all over me. By morning, this tent won’t show up in an aerial search.”

            Snap of fear. An aerial search? Why…Where was he? Why was he camping, for God’s sake! How did he get up there? What was this aerial search thing about? Was he trying to tell me something?

            No, he’s bragging, one-upping. Competitive. Playing with me, playing with my head, playing a game.

            The game was still on. Seven questions left.

            “Are you near water?”

            “Does ice count?”

            “Ice counts.”

            “Yes, I’m near water.”

            Frozen water. Not a stream. A lake.

            “Is it a lake?”

            “Good going, Judy,” he said. “You might even get it in twenty! You got four left.”

            “Five left,” I said. “You think I’m not counting?”

            “OK, five left. Just checking.”

            “Tim, are you within twenty miles of your house?”

            “Yes,” he said. “I’ll give you one. Within ten miles. Four left.”

            A lake he can hike into on a bad leg with a steel pin in it, carrying his gear in the snow. Had to be a short hike. LoloLake. No. That trail was too rough. MysteryLake. No. More than ten miles away. RussellLake, let’s see, ClearLake, maybe ClearLake.

            “Is it ClearLake?”

            Tim was having a lot of fun with this. He was little Timmy in the car, dancing in his seat, ready to win, saying, Give up, Judy? Give up? Give up?

            “No, but you’re getting warm.”

            “Warm? There’re no other lakes near ClearLake. How could I be warm?”

            Tim’s laugh, carol of the bells, ju-bi-la-te. “Two left. Give up?”

            “Three left!”

            “I’m counting ‘how could I be warm’.”

            “But you didn’t answer it!”

            “OK, I’ll answer it,” Tim said. “You’re warm about the name. Think of the name. Clear.  Lake. Two left.”

            Snowflakes still spiraled into the dark windowpane, tinted pink by the ruby red glow of 12:48 on the bedside clock.

            Clear.  Lake.

            “You mean, the name is similar?” I said. “Rhymes, like DeerLake or BearLake? Bear doesn’t rhyme.”

            “No, not rhyme,” Tim said. “I was thinking more of the meaning of the word.”

            “The meaning of Clear?”

            “No, wait, I’m wrong, it does rhyme,” Tim said. “Also the meaning. One left. And if you don’t guess it, I’m not telling you.”

            He wouldn’t tell me, either. He’d let me sweat. Couldn’t even see him in an aerial search.


            BeerLake. DeerLake. FearLake.

            GearLake. Hear Lake. JeerLake. LeerLake.


            “That’s it!” I shouted into the phone. “It’s MirrorLake!”

            Jack turned over in bed and opened his eyes, tried to focus.

            Right!” Tim said. “You win the prize.”

            “Is he all right?” Jack said.

            I covered the phone with my hand and whispered, “Yes, he’s fine, we’re just playing Twenty Questions.”

            Jack stayed focused for a moment longer, then groaned and went back to sleep.

            “What’s the prize?” I said.

            “My sub-arctic sleeping bag. I’m not doing this again.”

            “And you think I would?” I said. “How low does that bag go?”

            “Twenty below.”

            “Twenty below zero, or just twenty below freezing?”

            “Twenty below zero.”

            “Keep the bag.”

            “OK, but I’m not offering any substitute prizes.”

            “Tim, what in hell are you doing in the middle of December camped at a frozen lake?” I said. “And what do you mean, ‘I’m not doing this again?’ Are you going to kill yourself?”

            Quiet. He was still gaming me.

            Then, “I’m reading.”

            “Reading what?”

            “Judy, remember when you asked me how I see God?”

            “Yes, I remember.” It was after the operation that replaced the part of his shinbone eaten away by tumors.

            “I’ve quit believing in God,” he had said when he woke up from the anesthetic.

            Good,” I had responded. “Then Santa Claus God is dead, and you can find your own God.”

            I moved the phone to my other ear.

            “Here’s where I know God,” Tim said. “Right here where it’s always been. When I went out to pee, there were fox tracks around my tent. Did you know there’s a sound, a tone, that you can hear when there are no other sounds?”

            “I do know,” I said. “I heard it once. On Admiralty Island, in Alaska. A float plane dropped me off, and I stayed in the Forest Service cabin.”

            “You heard it?”

            “One day in the middle of the afternoon. It was so hot and still even the bugs were comatose. At first I thought my ears were ringing. But it didn’t go away, and then it started to feel…sort of…celestial.”

            “That’s it!” Tim said. “You heard it. Was it A-flat?”

            “God, I don’t know, Tim,” I said. “It was just a tone, a constant hum, that I’d never heard before. And never heard since.”

            “I heard it up here at the lake, standing out in the snow in the middle of the night,” he said. “I’ve only heard it a few times in my whole life, one other time in Alaska, too, now that I think about it. Halfway up Denali, in the middle of the night that time, too.

            “A-flat,” he said. “The sound of silence. The sound of the universe.” He paused for a moment. “The sound of God.”

            Snowflakes floated outside the window. Jack’s body was warm and close, snoring light snuffly snores. I pushed him onto his side, scooted down and planted my arm against his back to keep him there. The snores stopped.

            “What are you reading, Tim?”

            “Emerson,” Tim said. “Ralph Waldo Emerson.”

            “Emerson? Why are you reading Emerson? I haven’t read Emerson since high school!”

            “It’s from Nature,” he said. “Listen to this.”

            Tim started to read, his voice quieter now, still echoey.

“In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows. Nature says, — he is my creature, and even with all his impertinent griefs, he shall be glad with me.”

             “That’s it, Judy, that’s God,” he said. “Wild delight in the presence of nature. ‘He is my creature.’ Listen to this.”

“Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth.”

             I took deep breaths, calming myself. What was he doing? Jack turned over, reached for me, and cupped his hand over my knee.

            “I like that line ‘I am glad to the brink of fear,’” Tim said. “And ‘the snake casts off his slough.’ Pronounced ‘sluff,” right? Not ‘slue’ like the dike in Warrenton.

            “Tim, you’re not going to kill yourself, are you?” I said. Might as well play his game, play it all the way, let him know he wasn’t going to push me to the brink of fear.

Jack opened his eyes. “Is he okay?”

            I covered the mouthpiece. “He’s fine.”

            Tim in his sub-arctic sleeping bag in his bright orange tent in the snow by a frozen lake in the mountains in December at midnight, reading Ralph Waldo Emerson. Me in my bed in town in the dark, watching white flakes drift and swirl past the black window, ruby-red glow around me, warm and safe.

            “You’re reading Emerson up there?” I said. “What other books do you have with you?”

            “Dad’s Book,” Tim said. “Mom’s Book.”

Dad’s book. That would be The Bible. And Mom. Must be A Course in Miracles.

I sat up, put my feet on the floor and took a drink of water from the glass on my bedside table. The ruby red numbers on the clock said 1:12. Undulations pumped through me.

“Tim? Tim?” I said. “Here’s what you gotta do. Tim. Get up. Unzip your tent. Take the Bible and the Course and throw them out in the snow. Keep Emerson.”

“They’d be covered up by morning,” Tim said.

            “Right. Throw them out,” I said. “Keep Emerson.”

            “I’ll take your dare,” he said. “and if I’m found frozen dead out in the snow it will be all your fault.”

            He laughed, Timmy delighted, ju-bi-la-te, a man casting off his years and impertinent griefs, a snake his sloughed skin.

            “Judy,” he said. “I’m not doing this again.”

Sometimes he talked that way, as if he knew he was going to die. Other times he knew he would be healed. He knew a miracle would heal him.

It was just a matter of time before his miracle would appear. I could wait.

He would do it again. Between the two of us, we’d create a miracle, then maybe we’d go snow camping together. I could get my own sub-arctic sleeping bag.

            “I gotta hang up now,” Tim said. “Have to preserve my battery.”



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2 responses to “MEMOIR: Chapter 32 Twenty Questions

  1. Michael Edwsrds

    I wish I had known Tim better. I do feel like I know him better through your writing, but it makes me wish all the more.

    • judyallen

      Me too, just remembering some of the fun times. He took a special interest in my kids, and took you fishing. I miss him still. Always will.

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